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How Societies Survive

Part I: An interview with Mark Moffett on what makes or breaks a society.

 Mark W. Moffett, Used With Permission
Source: Mark W. Moffett, Used With Permission

This part one of an interview with zoologist and explorer Mark W. Moffett, an expert on human and animal societies, about his new book: The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall. Responses have been lightly edited, and links to supporting references were provided by Dr. Moffett. (Check out Part Two: Society and Identity.)

Q: Humans are intensely social with elaborate societies. Yet, you claim that the analogies between ant societies and human societies are more interesting than the analogies with chimp societies. What do you mean by that?

A: Of course, it’s easier to see similarities with chimpanzees since they are our closest genealogical relatives, but, often, the comparisons that have yielded the greatest scientific payoff have been those between ideas or things that are ordinarily treated as very different.

Alien though they seem, certain species of ants are, in many respects, much more like modern humans than are the chimpanzees. No chimp contends with a complex division of labor, organized assembly lines, and systems of roadways with traffic rules. Ants deal with all these things. That’s not because of any close genetic relationship with humans but because they live in huge societies.

Any concentrated population—even one consisting of dumb little ants—has to contend with all kinds of issues that never come up for the chimpanzee, like coordinating the movements of labor, transporting resources where they are needed, or management of public health. While many in the social sciences fear that biologists studying human societies will resort to genetic determinism, I say forget genetics. For me, what’s more useful and interesting about nature is what we can learn from parallels in social behavior.

Q: You say that hunters and gatherers (with their fissions and fusions of the small groups they live in) are not archaic peoples. They are “we.” In which sense? Is the idea of native “nations” a deep reality or an instrumental concept of identity?

A: The lives of prehistoric hunter-gatherers may seem very foreign from a modern perspective, but they were fully developed human beings, and their commitment to their societies was just as strong as that of modern people today. Early societies consisted of at most a couple thousand individuals with a shared language and culture, who lived spread out across space in various small groups with changing membership. It’s incorrect to treat societies as a modern phenomenon—nations, in particular, aren’t tied together by the mass media, as some academics contend. Societies can be traced back to the origin of our species, if not earlier, as essential to humankind as love or family.

Q: You describe very well the de-humanization of the outsider (through stereotypes, prejudices, fear, invented stories, and propaganda) as a universal phenomenon, including the extreme of ethnic genocide. Why can this process of de-humanization work so efficiently?

A: Trust is easier with people from our own society, or between friendly societies, because the behavior of those individuals is far more predictable—even when interacting with complete strangers from our society, perhaps someone living some distance from us, we have a good idea of his or her customs, expectations, and moral code. Our minds evolved to contend with the unknowns of Paleolithic times when we often had to act on little information about potentially dangerous “others”—people who were not of our society, whom we had little basis to trust. The conclusions we drew about such groups were codified in our minds as negative stereotypes that, even if untrue, gave us the best chance of survival. Nowadays, these biases about outsiders backfire in our intimately interconnected world.

Q: And what about how societies collapse? While Jared Diamond focuses on external factors, environmental spoilage, scarcity, etc., you look to internal features, such as disaggregation, societal divisions, infighting, and so forth.

A: My hypothesis is that the root cause of a society’s demise is a change of identity: Its members no longer feel they belong together. I devote a substantial portion of my book to considering how this transpires. Environmental factors and the other external sources of stress that Diamond talks about can accelerate the process yet aren’t essential. In fact, when people share an identity, they’re likely to stick together even if things get tough.

Still, people’s identities slowly but surely shift over time and geographical space, which means their sense of being part of the same society will change irrespective of such problems as hostile neighbors or crop failures. When society members are no longer comfortable together, they will eventually break away from each other. What are being called “collapses” are better described as breakups and represent a few extreme instances of the ever-changing nature of societies. I made a back-of-napkin calculation that over a million human societies have existed, all of which went through a cycle of birth, growth, and fragmentation.

Q: You think that a cosmopolitan society is impossible, an unrealistic dream, because this global fusion would suffer great internal tensions and because smaller societies are inevitable: In what sense?

A: While we can feel a shared humanity, it’s very improbable that we will discard our societies or make them secondary to such a global union. People love their unique identities and can feel threatened, for example, at the influx of too many immigrants whose stark differences appear to erode their sense of self. A global passport won’t change that.

Social media and international trade and travel make us ever more familiar with different cultures; but societies have always taken what they wanted from the outer world, like American films and fast food being widely adopted in the second half of the 20th century, without national borders crumbling down. And in time, all societies of humans and other mammals fragment from within: “Identities shift and societies shatter” is how I put it in the book.

Q: The primatologist Frans de Waal gives great importance to cooperation and empathy. But you say that we can have cooperation without any society and, furthermore, that to be more pro-social does not imply greater intelligence.

A: Cooperation can indeed happen outside the boundaries of a society, and a society does not depend on cooperation among all members. Societies contain friends and enemies, the socially gifted and hermits who never cooperate with anyone. Still, across the animal kingdom, the cooperation and empathy that Frans studies are more likely to be fostered within societies. We are lucky to be a species that can build international relationships, but those will always take more effort to manage.

The interview continues in Part Two: Society and Identity.


Moffett, M. W. (2019). The human swarm: how our societies arise, thrive, and fall. Basic Books.

More from Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D.
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